History of Flagstaff

United States > US City Index > Flagstaff > History

Surrounded by vast Ponderosa Pine forests at the base of the majestic San Francisco Peaks, perched high on the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff offers a beautifully mixed landscape of forests, high deserts, lakes, and volcanic craters, a scenery unparalleled in all of Arizona. The first settlers to the area, drawn to the cool pine forests around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, shared the land with bison, antelope, and camel, supporting their people by hunting and foraging, until they settled into an agricultural way of life to get their proteins from a diet of beans, squash and corn.

From those early settlers, the Sinagua evolved, a tribe that moved into the area of present-day Flagstaff and south to Oak Creek Canyon around the year 1,000 A.D. They derived their named fom the Spanish word for "no water", a reference to the leaky, porous limestone cliffs where they built those dwellings noted by the first Spanish explorers. The Sinagua constructed an eloborate system of irrigation and adobe pueblos in the nooks and niches of protective cliffs such as Walnut Canyon, but by the time the Spaniards discovered the region in the 16th century, they had already abandoned their homes for reasons that remain uncertain to this day. Historians keep wondering whether they were driven away by drought, disease, or hostile Athabascan tribes invading from the north. Hundreds of ruins like Wupatki National Monument have been found to prove they were there, but nothing to confirm why they left.

European American settlers did not move into the area till the 1870s, right after the war-like Apaches had been driven to southeastern Arizona. A few colonizers arrived in 1876 and established a settlement called Agassiz near San Francisco Peaks, but, lacking the knowledge and technology of the Sinagua, decided that the area was not good for farming. Finally, a shepherder named Thomas Forsythe MacMillan came, concluded that this was a great land for raising sheep, and stayed. By 1880, the areas population had grown to 67.

Two years later, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (now the Santa Fe) arrived, and the towns future was secured. The sound of trains has remained Flagstaffs acoustic trademark to this day, as any visitor will confirm after listening to the whistle of the many freight trains that pass through Flagstaff every day.

According to local lore, the town acquired its name from a pole that may or may not ever have existed. Some say that a Ponderosa Pine tree was stripped and a flag hoisted on July 4, 1876, to mark the Centennial of U.S. Independence, others insist that it was used as a marker to guide travelers west, but no matter what happened, the pole is lost forever, as it was turned into firewood for one of the many saloons. What we know for sure is that the name Flagstaff was selected by a group of citizens meeting at a tent store in 1881.

In 1886 and 1888, fires destroyed the settlement. Fortunately, enough lumber was around for rebuilding, and in 1891, Flagstaff became seat of the newly created Coconino County. In 1894, the city was incorporated, and Lowell Observatory was established, destined to become one of the leading astronomy institutions in the world.

Lumber quickly grew into the main industry in Coconino Forest, making some entrepreneurs very rich in the process, notably lumber magnate Michael Riordan, whose legacy is well preserved in his mansion at Riordan State Historic Park. The man also gained some notoriety for being one of the first known pot-hunters, exploring and looting the Walnut Canyon ruins until local citizens became alarmed at the extent of the destruction wreaked on the cliff dwellings. The Chamber of Commerce, now acknowledging the tourist value of the ruins, denounced the mutilation in 1891, and in 1904, the site became part of the San Francisco Mountain Preserve.

While timber still remains one of the backbones for Flagstaffs economy, and the county provides more than half of Arizonas domestic sheep, tourism has now become the citys most important enterprise. Located at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet, in close proximity to the Grand Canyon in cool, fresh mountain air, Flagstaff has long attracted health seekers as well as people from around the world eager to explore its natural beauty. Today, the town is much more than just an overnight stop for tourists on historic Route 66 en route to the Grand Canyon. Inhabitants of the megalopolis of Phoenix, just a two hours drive to the south, frequently come here to escape the stifling summer heat of the Southern Arizona deserts.

In 1912, Flagstaff just barely missed the opportunity to become the movie capital of the world, when director Cecil B. DeMille came looking for a location where outdoor shooting was possible all year round. Unfortunately, a snow flurry descending on the town convinced him that this was not the place, and he moved on further west to a region with more agreeable weather. However, Flagstaff has been frequently featured in film and TV productions since. One room at The Monte Vista Hotel was in fact used for a scene in the movie Casablanca, and you can spend the night there, too.

Since 1899, when the foundation of Normal School, forerunner of Northern Arizona University (NAU), added a new cultural and intellectual dimension to the timber town, metropolitan Flagstaff has slowly developed into the main center of cultural activity in Northern Arizona. Numerous events and festivals, such as the Coconino County Fair and the Flagstaff Winterfest, attract enough visitors to create serious traffic congestion during summer months. NAU itself, which is now the towns biggest employer, hosts a variety of art and music events throughout the year. The city also takes great pride in featuring the best venue for learning about the geology, history, biology, and art on the Colorado Plateau. A visit to the Museum of Northern Arizona is an absolute must for anyone remotely interested in the history of the area.

While most of the shopping has moved to the suburbs , new cafes and specialty stores have sprung up inside well-tended old structures in the historic downtown district. With around 65,000 inhabitants and growing, Flagstaff, just like many other cities in the country, suffers from symptoms of urban sprawl, but there is little of the downtown sleaziness and scruffiness that characterizes so many other places trying to cope with the problems of rapid growth. At the time of writing, restoration and expansion in downtown Flagstaff is still going on, and the best way to keep current and get a feel for the history of this town is to get out of the car and take a leisurely walk around the historic district along Santa Fe Avenue, the street also known as Route 66.